Is Russia Cultivating ‘Symmetric Separatism’ in Karabakh?

By Eduard Abrahamyan

Publication: Eurasia Daily Monitor Volume: 16 Issue: 83

The article was published on Jamestown.org

Moscow’s mistrust of the Armenian government headed by Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan dates all the way back to his rise to power last year in the so-called “Velvet Revolution.” And that mistrust has persisted despite Pashinyan’s various foreign policy gambits designed to win Russia’s confidence (see EDM, March 21). At the same time, Pashinyan’s domestic agenda—specifically, his determination to dismantle the previous regime’s oligarchic/kleptocratic order, including by prosecuting former president Robert Kocharyan for abuses of power—seems to be increasingly irking Moscow as well. For years, Russia has fostered numerous collaborationist “deep state” assets in various levels of the decision-making apparatuses in both Yerevan and Armenian-backed Stepanakert, the capital of the province of Karabakh, which broke away from Azerbaijan in 1991. As a result, Moscow is able to benefit politically from the current deepening rift between certain segments of the Armenian political elite. Karabakh (or “Artsakh” as it is known in the Armenian historical designation), the political status of which has long been disputed between Armenia and Azerbaijan, to date is the only ethno-political conflict in the post-Soviet space where Russia possesses neither boots on the ground nor explicit direct control. Nevertheless, for years, Moscow has periodically sought to use the local authorities in Karabakh as a proxy tool of coercive diplomacy against both Baku and Yerevan.

On May 20, Pashinyan sharply rebuked the decision of an Armenian court to release Kocharyan from pre-trial detention. The judge in the case had acted in part based on a “guarantee request” submitted by the former and incumbent “presidents of Artsakh,” Arkadiy Ghukasyan and Bako Sahakyan, respectively (Armenpress.am, May 16). Whether intended this way or not, Kocharyan’s release deepened the preexisting rifts in Armenian society and was interpreted as a challenge to Pashinyan’s rule (see EDM, June 3). The Armenian prime minister urged his fellow citizens to reject outside efforts to drive a wedge between Armenians living at home and in Karabakh. “I call upon the people of Artsakh to support only those powers who support the people of Armenia and its legitimate representative government,” Pashinyan concluded (YouTube, May 20).

At the same time, however, several individuals close to the Kremlin intensified their malign activities in Stepanakert. In particular, Modest Kolerov, a former advisor of Vladimir Putin on the “near abroad” and head of the Gazprom Media–affiliated Regnum news agency, visited Karabakh to agitate for the region’s “right to a dignified sovereign existence”—separate from Armenia and Azerbaijan but under Russia’s patronage (Regnum, May 24). Kolerov was accompanied on his trip by well-known Russian propagandist Stanislav Tarasov. In attempting to set Stepanakert against Yerevan, the Russian visitors employed emotionally manipulative language in combination with fake narratives and disinformation-based tactics (Lragir.am, May 22). While meeting local students and scholars, Kolerov and Tarasov equally spoke against Azerbaijan and Armenia, while discrediting the Minsk negotiation process and the “Miatsum” idea (translated as “Amalgamation”) of ultimate unification of the breakaway province with Armenia—once a bedrock of the Karabakh movement in 1987–1990.

Meanwhile, Ambassador Evgeniy Mikhailov, a Russian professional diplomat and, as some assert, a military intelligence (GRU) officer with the rank of major general, arrived in Stepanakert with a “package of proposals” for some candidates who might be best placed to represent Moscow’s interests in the future. Furthermore, famously neo-imperialist Konstantin Zatulin, the deputy chair of the State Duma (Russian lower house of parliament) committee for the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) and relations with Russian nationals abroad, also arrived in Stepanakert in recent days (Zatulin.ru, June 3). Speaking under anonymity, an official close to Bako Sahakyan surmised that “Moscow seeks to buy political power in Stepanakert using cash, dossiers and blackmailing tactics” (Author’s interview, May 27). Russia will undoubtedly meddle in next year’s “presidential elections” in Karabakh.

The conspicuous Russian activity prompted a reaction in Stepanakert. Specifically, 11 political parties and non-governmental organizations launched the “Miatsum” Alliance inter alia to derail Moscow’s local interference efforts (News.am, May 28). Such Russian actions risk reviving the long-harbored antagonistic sentiment in Karabakh, dating back to the Soviet military’s “Koltso” (Ring) operation in 1991, which led to mass deportations and killings of local Armenians—helping to spark the Armenian-Azerbaijani conflict (Aniarc.am, August 30, 2015).

Although the majority of Karabakh’s population identifies Miatsum as the overarching national desire (Eufoa.org, November 17, 2016), some local authorities, along with Russian emissaries, are instead agitating for “Artsakh’s sovereignty.” That said, the concept of Karabakh gaining “independence” has long been advocated by the government of Armenia, which presumed that such “diplomatic cunning” would nonetheless ultimately end in unionism. However, that approach was always fraught with many tangible vulnerabilities. In particular, the formula of an “independent Artsakh” clashes with the reality of Moscow’s encroachments in supposedly “independent” South Ossetia, Transnistria or Abkhazia. A comparable scenario looks feasible vis-à-vis Karabakh. The above-mentioned Russian assets and deep state structures that already exist there are providing the groundwork for individuals close to the Kremlin to embed an ethno-regional context into the local discourse by cultivating the idea of a “symmetric separatism” between Armenia and Karabakh.

Indeed, earlier this year, populist-nationalist Russian politician Vladimir Zhirinovsky openly suggested that the “solution to the Karabakh conflict” requires its incorporation into Russia (Arminfo, January 18). Moreover, in 2018, the Russia-Artsakh Friendship Union was established in Moscow, designed to buttress the sense of Karabakh’s “independence” from Armenia, while advocating for direct Stepanakert-Moscow ties without Yerevan’s involvement (Armedia.am, February 27, 2018). In this vein, former Armenian military commander Samvel Babayan, currently on trial for corrupt financial machinations and close ties with various shady Moscow-based circles, proposed that Karabakh might apply to become a Russian territorial mandate, which would clearly entail troop deployments (Civilnet.am. March 19).

Evidently, the evolving political atmosphere in Yerevan has encouraged some in President Putin’s close circles to try to exploit the divisions among Armenian elites in order to expand Russian influence in Karabakh. Individuals pursuing Moscow’s interests on the ground can also provoke such a scenario. It is worth recalling an episode, in 2015, when Bako Sahakyan was visiting Moscow. At the press conference orchestrated by the aforementioned Modest Kolerov, Sahakyan suggested that the Russian military could “exploit the airfield near Stepanakert” for “anti-terrorist purposes in Syria” (YouTube, November 17, 2015). Prior to this, the late Igor Muradyan, a prominent policy expert, relying on his private data, warned that “the incumbent authorities of Artsakh intend to turn” the breakaway region into a “Russian zone” that will be progressively distanced from Yerevan (Azatutyun.am, February 5, 2015). Having been a key figure in the Karabakh movement in the late 1980s, Muradyan once assumed that Russian emissaries’ proclivities had much to do with derailing the original Miatsum agenda and eventually replacing it with the “independent Karabakh” idea (Author’s interview, 2017). Though initially a somewhat alien phenomenon for Armenian society, the foreign-imposed notion that Karabakh should become independent falls well in line with Russia’s modus operandi of exploiting unrecognized ethno-political entities for coercive diplomacy.

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